From Porty to Armadale, new book reveals Edinburgh Monarchs' history mirrors that of British speedway
As it approaches its centenary year, British speedway's history mirrors that of the sport’s track record in the Capital, claims a new book by Edinburgh born TV producer Roddy McDougall.
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No Breaks: A Lost Season in British Speedway charts the sport’s battle to survive 2020 as, along with businesses everywhere, it succumbed to the pandemic and lockdown.
In the book, McDougall investigates the current state of the sport in the UK. Once the country’s second most popular spectator sport, the 61-year-old examines the impact of Covid, the way in which surviving tracks and a declining fanbase mirror wider social and political trends, the dominance of Polish speedway, and the power of the speedway community, among other things.
As he investigates, McDougall, who got hooked on the sport watching the Monarchs race at Powderhall in the Eighties, talks to some of the biggest names track side, including Monarchs' co-promoter and manager, Alex Harkess who was also Chairman of the sport's ruling body, the BSPA, for a number of years.
"My background is in TV news,” the writer explains, “and I've always thought there was a story in speedway that could go beyond the sport’s community. Originally, the idea was to cover a year in the life of British speedway, follow a few riders from different tracks, touch base with some promoters and chart how they fared over a year... and then the pandemic happened and changed the narrative. However, I still felt there was a good story in there because there are such a lot of people who, when you mention speedway, say, 'Oh, is that still going?'
"Reminding them that it is, and bringing to life the human story behind it was what I wanted to do in this book."
Remembering his own introduction to the sport, McDougall writes that it was the team aspect of the sport that kept him coming back after seeing his first meeting at the age of 21. 'Knowing who the riders are before the race, anticipating who is going to win, who might miss the start but then work his way through from the back, is all part of the joy of watching speedway. I'm reminded of my first season watching Edinburgh Monarchs in 1982 and how the seven riders - Dave Trownson, Benny Rourke, Ivan Blacka, Chris Turner, Eric Broadbelt, Brett Saunders and Ian Westwell - hardly changed from week to week. I got to know their individual riding styles and, as a result, I got hooked.'
In No Breaks (the title refers to the fact that all seven riders in each team race 500cc bikes with a fixed gear and no brakes, using a metal shoe on their left foot to slow them down as they slide their bikes into the corners of a shale track), McDougall reflects that speedway's trajectory since its heydays of the 1940s and 1950s has very much been mirrored by the fortunes of speedway in the Capital and the story of the Edinburgh Monarchs.
'In my ways the history of speedway in Edinburgh mirrors the path the sport as a whole has taken in this country. It began in May 1928 in Portobello, at Marine Gardens, an existing pleasure complex, which at different times, boasted a zoo, a circus and a ballroom. When it started up again after the Second World War and Marine Gardens was no longer available, it moved to Old Meadowbank Stadium.
‘The home at the time of Leith Athletic football club, it was a city-centre location befitting a sport drawing crowds in their thousands, but Old Meadowbank Stadium was demolished to build a new athletics arena for the 1970 Commonwealth Games, with speedway falling out of favour, there was no place for it.
‘It didn't return until 1977, this time at Powderhall greyhound stadium, closer to Leith than the city centre. In 1995 a housing developer made an offer for the site and Edinburgh were evicted once again. They raced at Shawfield in Glasgow in 1996 under the banner of the Scottish Monarchs which was, in the words of Harkess, a complete disaster; "The fans didnt get on and they used to throw bread rolls at each other."
‘They managed to find a new home the following year at a greyhound stadium in the old mining community of Armadale in West Lothian just off the M8 motorway.... the Monarchs have remained there ever since,'
McDougall's comparison continues, 'The 90-year-long journey to out of town industrial area via leisure complex, city centre stadium, greyhound stadium and a couple of evictions to boot, is one with which many other speedway clubs can identify.'
McDougall also records in the book that one of Harkess' proudest moments as head of the BSPA was the introduction of new safety fence technology, which has vastly reduced the risk of serious injury to riders. The Monarchs’ co-promoter admitting in print, “Going back to our early days at Armadale, riders would hit that wooden fence and I'd hear the thud. I used to shut my eyes thinking, ‘What the hell's happened to him?’ The air fence has certainly made the sport an awful lot safer; they've got a chance of walking away”.'
There are other positives to be taken from his research, McDougall says, “In some ways, Edinburgh Monarchs along with Glasgow are the success stories of speedway at club level, but it’s important that, just as you’ve had women being successful in horse-racing, darts and boxing over the last 18 months, giving their sports a mainstream publicity boost, somehow the emergence of women speedway riders has to happen.”
No Breaks: A Lost Season In British Speedway, by Roddy McDougall, is published in hardback, priced £19.99 by Pitch Publishing, all proceeds go to the Speedway Riders Benevolent Fund.